Women of Color in Leadership: Building strength while overcoming obstacles

“Diversity matters. If we spend our whole lives talking and looking at people who look just like us, then that gives a very narrow representation of the world. The more we see diversity, the more beneficial it is, and if you can see it you can be it,” explains Yvette Thornton, Vice President for The WICT Network: Greater Philadelphia, as she reflects on the importance of women of color in leadership roles.

Yvette Thornton, Vice President for The WICT Network: Greater Philadelphia

Each February we recognize Black History month, which highlights the accomplishments of African Americans and their influence on society. In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, by showcasing the accomplishments of women from across the globe. For this issue of the Pulse newsletter, The WICT Network reached out to leaders who are women of color to share their experiences, triumphs, obstacles and advice for those who are looking to take the next steps in their careers. Here you’ll learn how three women of color in leadership continue to build inner strength while overcoming adversity.

Your Style – It’s Important

Leadership has a variety of styles and effective methods, but flexibility is one factor most leaders would agree on.

Candace McIntyre, Membership Co-Chair for The WICT Network: Washington DC/Baltimore

“My leadership style is versatile, which comes from a servitude mindset. I’m happy to serve and lead others and always encourage the underdog. I’m able to read the room and flex when and where it’s necessary,” says Candace McIntyre, Membership Co-Chair for The WICT Network: Washington DC/Baltimore.

Adeyinka Ogunlegan, Membership Chair for The WICT Network: Washington DC/Baltimore, believes in taking a more laid-back approach to leading her team, while utilizing peer-to-peer feedback.

Adeyinka Ogunlegan, Membership Chair for The WICT Network: Washington DC/Baltimore

“I’m a leader who likes to empower my team. I believe that giving people the space to do their jobs is essential to success while also offering constant support,” explains Ogunlegan. “I’m also a big believer in feedback, because you can’t figure out how to improve without it. You have to be receptive to hearing and receiving it.”

Be Seen, Be Heard, Be You

Empathy and authenticity are two of the most important things to Thornton, who stands by both practices in terms of building relationships.

“Once you’re able to relate to someone on their level and understand their position, you can connect with them, and connections are the best possible way to lead,” says Thornton.

She also notes that in every situation has three possible sides and it’s important for all women who lead to step out of certain conversations/situations and try analyzing it from another point of view. Doing this, according to Thornton, will allow you to lead from a more genuine place. Although she didn’t always practice these leadership skills, she never lost sight of improving.

“It’s taken a long time to get here [to be authentically myself]. It wasn’t until COVID that I was comfortable with things like coming to work in my natural hair. It might not sound like a big thing, but it is, and I think one of the benefits to being virtual [resulting from COVID], was that people got a glimpse into other people’s home or day-to-day lives,” recalls Thornton.

She emphasizes that when more people start to realize “they’re more alike than different, we can all start to empathize with one another,” which is a powerful thing. “It’s not all about the work, it’s about the relationships and people,” Thornton explains.

Overcoming Stereotypes and Inner Battles Against Impostor Syndrome

Women of color continue to make their mark in the workforce. However, there are still obstacles that many face that involve pre-conceived notions.

“Sometimes society tells us that women of color have attitudes, can be loud and forceful, but it’s important that our peers and employers not judge a book by its cover,” says McIntyre. “In that same vein, it’s critical for companies and organizations to lean in and continue to find and hire women of color in our market.”

According to McIntyre, it’s a disservice when companies are hiring for a position and do not have women of color or women in general to be interviewed or considered. “In this day and age, there’s no excuse. I don’t care if no [women of color or women] applied, let’s go find them because they represent a significant portion of the labor force and should continue to increase in numbers,” says McIntyre.

Although societal barriers may hinder the amount of leaders who are women of color, Thornton believes that being comfortable in your own skin is another key in overcoming these types of battles. She notes that being comfortable with yourself limits the amount of code-switching some leaders might have to do. *Editor’s note: “Code switching” is when a person goes back and forth with a work and personal life persona.

“The more confident I get in myself the more those two personas merge together,” explains Thornton. “When you don’t have to worry about putting on a mask you can show up and be who you truly are more easily. It’s a journey and I’m trying to make sure that I share what I’ve learned with others – to stand in your grace.”

“In any organization, diversity in leadership is great for the bottom line and women of color bring another perspective to the table based on lived experience,” Ogunlegan explains. “Women of color can be champions for everyone because we recognize the challenges it takes to achieve even though we still face a lot of historical disadvantages.”

According to Ogunlegan, it’s not uncommon for women of color to face difficulty in regard to their capabilities, which can even come down to what is considered professional hair.

“Many women of color who are in leadership also have to overcome the imposter syndrome and feeling like you don’t belong in the position you have,” says Thornton. “It’s that eerie feeling that you’re there because you’re Black and not because you deserve to be there. I’m not sure how we can overcome that, but the reality is, no matter how you got there, you deserve to be there.”

Looking Ahead in Business

All three leaders agree that “it’s all about the network” and sharpening your skills when it comes to moving forward in any aspect of your career.

“I like to stay current on what’s going on in the industry, and I constantly look for feedback,” says McIntyre. “We’re constantly being judged whether we want to admit it or not, but being abreast of what’s going on at all times helps to leverage the field.”

According to Thornton, taking advantage of programs and being flexible is essential to professional growth.

“The WICT Network is a great way for all women to develop and strengthen their leadership skills. It allows you to stretch yourself beyond your day job, especially educational programs like EDS and BMLI,” explains Thornton. “These are great opportunities to strengthen your skillset with likeminded and open-minded individuals who have navigated the waters. No one should under estimate the power of a conversation, because building and developing relationships outside of your company can help you on your next steps.”